Old faithful: Unbelievably Good Chili.

I think almost anyone who spends any time in the kitchen has at least one or two “go-to” meals.  This is the meal you cook without ever consulting a recipe book, the meal you prepare when you know you need it to turn out well.  My “old faithful” is decidedly low brow, but simple to make, healthy, and (dare I say), delicious.  It’s chili.

This recipe is adapted – but still largely based – on my very first cookbook.  On a last minute trip to BJ’s Wholesale club the week before I went to college for the first time, my mom bought me The Complete Idiot’s Guide to 20-Minute Meals.  This book, with its step by step instructions, reliance on simple ingredients, and helpful hints, first convinced me that I could make something edible.  More than ten years later, this cookbook’s pages are falling out; they’re splashed with food stains; they’re dog-eared.  The book naturally opens to page 117 – the page marked “Unbelievably Good Chili.”

I will never get rid of it.

Varina’s Go-to Chili

  • 1 large can diced tomatoes (you can buy with chilis in them to spice it up!)
  • 1 lb ground beef (lean and mean!)
  • 1 can refried beans (non-fat works perfectly – this is the secret ingredient!)
  • 1 can kidney beans, drained and rinsed
  • Large red onion, sliced/diced
  • Olive oil
  • Jalapeno or poblano pepper, diced
  • 1 can corn, drained and rinsed
  • Chili powder
  • Crushed red pepper flakes
  • Cumin
  • Salt and pepper
  • Feel free to twist it up – I like to add – tomato paste, green peppers, other types of beans
  • Toppings: Sour cream, cilantro, green onions, cheddar cheese, raw onions etc.
  1. In a large dutch oven or pot over medium-high heat, cook the onions down in olive oil until they’re translucent. Pop in a dash of salt and pepper.
  2. Brown the meat in the onions – making sure not to burn the meat. Especially if the meat is super lean (healthy as possible!), make sure it crumbles all the way (otherwise it gets clumps together and is pretty tasteless.)
  3. Add the diced tomatoes, corn, kidney beans and then the refried beans. Mix it all the way through. (Note: if you’re using tomato paste, put that in first so it has time to develop flavor).
  4. Cook down for about 15-20 minutes.  (This is a good time to get your cornbread going!)
  5. I like to add the jalapenos/poblanos/chopped green pepper with a few minutes to go before serving time, so they retain a bit of crunch.
  6. Add spices – a good handful of chili powder, about half a handful cumin. Salt and pepper to taste. Mix it up and let cook through another couple minutes.
  7. Serve with toppings!
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deliciousness in a bowl.

Doctored cornbread muffins

  • 1 box Jiffy cornbread mix
  • one egg
  • splash milk (use slightly less than the back of the box calls for, to make up for the moisture in the creamed corn)
  • can creamed corn
  • diced jalapeno
  1. Preheat your oven to 400 degrees.  Line a muffin tray with paper liners (Tip: if you spray them lightly with non-stick spray, your cornbread won’t stick to the liner when it’s done.)
  2. Mix all of your ingredients together in a small bowl and pour into the muffin tins, until each cup is about 2/3 full.
  3. Bake for about 15-20 minutes.
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pink liners courtesy of my sister…

The Verdict:

See title of blog post.  Enough said!

(No, seriously.  And the bonus is, you can generally make this from ingredients you can keep for a long, long time – ground beef in the freezer, cans of beans/corn/tomatoes in the cabinet.  The fresh ingredients are an added bonus, but don’t make or break the dish.  And it makes a TON of leftovers, if you’re feeding only two people.)

Frost Living: Kale, Mushroom and Pancetta Pasta.

Every so often when I was little, my mom would leave home for a few weeks to visit her parents and brother in Germany.  My mom is a trained chef, and for almost every single night of my childhood, my mom filled our home with the smell of onions, garlic and a well seasoned sauce.  We were beyond lucky to not only be fed a home cooked meal almost every night, but be to be fed an unbelievable home cooked meal almost every night.

So for those two weeks or so a year, my dad would be in charge.  And there is nothing my dad loves more than a good opportunity to empty the fridge/freezer.  Every time my mom would leave, we would live almost exclusively off of the contents of our freezer, which my mother kept well stocked (chicken breasts, half off! ground beef, buy one get one!).  “Time to live off the frost of the land,” he would announce.  First, we’d go through the frozen meats and vegetables, sometimes the chicken stock.  And then, by the time my mom got back, we’d be into the frozen pizzas, chicken nuggets, and ice cream.

I may be an adult now, but I still love a good “frost living” dinner.  Tonight was no exception.  After coming back from the Cape earlier today, we had no energy to grocery shop or even plan.  Tonight’s dinner brought to you exclusively from ingredients we already had on hand.

“Frost Living” Pasta

  • pancetta, diced
  • olive oil
  • mushrooms, sliced
  • red onion, sliced
  • garlic, minced
  • greens (leftover kale and bitter green mix – leftover from the pie earlier this week)
  • chicken broth
  • white wine
  • spices: garlic salt, salt, crushed red pepper, ground black pepper, ground mustard
  • pasta
  • cheese (we used cubed fontina)

1. Get a pot of water boiling; cook pasta according to directions.  Drain.

2. In the meantime, heat olive oil in a large saute pan.  Once heated, toss in the onion and heat until translucent.  Throw in a handful of diced pancetta.  Pour in a few turns of white wine, let it cook down for a bit before tossing in the garlic and a few sprinkles of each of the spices listed (minus the salt, which I like to save for last so as not to oversalt, and so as not to draw too much water out of the mushrooms).

3. Toss in the mushrooms – the more, the better, as mushrooms will cook down a whole lot.  Let them cook down a bit before mixing in the greens -again, the more, the better.  Add in some chicken broth to add a little bit of salted flavor; add in salt and pepper; let it all cook down and meld together.

4. Toss with pasta, add in some extra cheese, and enjoy.

The Verdict:

This is a go-to.  It’s always dependent on what we have in the fridge/freezer, and no pasta is ever the same.  But it’s almost always comfort in a bowl.  Key to this dish is the crushed red pepper – adds just the right amount of heat.

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not pictured: all the melted cheese.